How to Shop Better in 2020

How to Shop Better
Market carrying locally-sourced products in Kos, Greece

Wouldn’t it be nice to see where your money ends up?

I’d sleep better knowing I didn’t help pay for some dictator’s third mansion.

But lengthening supply chains and shortening attention spans make shopping consciously a challenge.

Fortunately, we’ve got you covered.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to evil-free (ethical, eco-friendly and cruelty-free) shopping.

It takes a little sleuthing, but we’ll try to make it fun.


Step 0.

Before you buy something, ask yourself:

  • Am I shopping to ward off existential dread?
  • Do I have something similar?
  • Can I borrow it from someone?
  • Can I make it myself?
  • Can I find it in a second hand store?

If you answered “no” to all of these, please proceed to step 1.


Step 1.

Choose the right store.

To save you time, don’t go to Amazon or Walmart.

They’re not worth it.

Here are some better alternatives.

General

Overstock is like an online outlet. It’s a great place to find discounts.

My favorite part is you can see the country of origin on each listing.

Groceries

Check out your local farmer’s markets.

Otherwise, Costco, Safeway, Wegmans, Sprouts or Trader Joes will do.

Crafts

Ten Thousand Villages is a great non-profit for crafts.

Etsy is another good option with a large selection.

Fashion

Fashion is very tricky.

Most clothing, especially fast fashion, is environmentally and ethically problematic.

They also don’t make it easy to find their manufacturers.

Even a well-known ethical brand like Patagonia plays hard to get. It took me a good 10 minutes of clicking around to find their manufacturer list.

It turns out that as of Nov, 2019, 7 out of 75 of their manufacturers are in China.

And by their own admission:

“Far more of our products are made by those Chinese suppliers than they are by the U.S factories because of their expertise and price, but we do work with factories in the United States when we can.”

We understand that a lot of U.S. manufacturing is gone. But we need to make a stand somewhere.

And good for Patagonia for even making this public knowledge, most clothing brands don’t.

But for the purposes of this site, we can’t completely recommend them.

I’ve seen “manufactures in the USA” and “based in the USA” labels, but with a little digging I found that they all use factories in China.

The brands below are the few I’ve found that manufacture in the US or outside of China.

You can always try your local second-hand store. Here’s a mostly complete directory of thrift shops in the U.S.

Or these three organizations that can be found everywhere:

Electronics

This is probably the hardest one.

Mica is a mineral that’s mined mostly by children in India. It’s used in everything from hair dryers to computer monitors.

And pretty much every company uses rare earth minerals and components from China.

The best bet is to use your electronics for as long as possible.

My partner uses an iPhone 6s. Changing the battery after 3 years made it almost good as new.

Refurbished electronics are another option.

Only 5% of them are defective.

Refurbees specializes in refurbished goods.

Fairphone looks promising and most of their manufacturing takes place in Taiwan.


Step 2.

Look at the label.

Try to find products made domestically.

For cosmetics and household items, check for the Leaping Bunny logo.

For agricultural products, look for USDA Certified Organic symbol or AWG.

Logos
Leaping Bunny, Energy Star, USDA Organic, AWG logos

They have the highest standards for animal welfare among independent organizations.

For appliances, Energy Star by the EPA is a reliable certificate for efficient products.

Ecolabels are pretty meaningless to be honest.

I have yet to find any that are actually reliable.

Cradle to Cradle is an independent agency that provides ratings for sustainability. Just maybe don’t hire them as consultants.

LEED is pretty good for construction projects.

Forest Stewardship Council does a nice job of rating sustainable timber and wood products.


To make things a little more real, we’ll use Brooks Running Shoes as an example.

I’ve been their loyal customer for 15 years after getting Achilles Tendonitis from boxing.

Brooks may not win any design awards, but they have the best arch support I’ve tried.

Let’s take a look at their label.

Brooks Running Shoes
Brooks Running Shoes, Made in Vietnam. Good enough?

Great.

I don’t know what I’d have done if they were made in China.

Probably write a strongly worded letter and look for an alternative.

At the same time, this can be code for “parts mostly from mainland China and assembled in Vietnam”. Or in the worst case this.

Brooks wouldn’t knowingly allow the latter. They’ve been transparent about their suppy chain.

But pollution from manufacturing in Vietnam is a becoming a problem, because they don’t have the same regulations as other countries.

The label doesn’t cover this or if they use unpaid orphans for labor.

We’ll have to dig a little deeper for that info.


Step 3.

Search the company online.

Search “company name”

+ cruelty-free

This one doesn’t apply, since we’re dealing with footwear, not cosmetics.

+ ethical

Brooks + Ethical

This seems good enough. They don’t use sweatshop or child labor according to Choice.com.au

+ eco-friendly

Brooks + Eco-friendly

Two for two. Not bad.

The packaging is made out of recyclable, biodegradable material and they print with soy-based inks.

+ China

Brooks + China

This is a tough one. They do have manufacturing in China, but they are in the process of moving it out.

Again, we understand the challenges of running a profitable business while remaining ethical.

But supporting the CCP is not my idea of money well spent.


Step 4.

Email the company if there’s not enough info.

Since the articles don’t make it clear how much they manufacture in China, I emailed Brooks.

I’ll post an update once they respond.

****Update****

Received a brief response saying they don’t release their manufacturing info. I asked where I could get those figures. The company rep was actually curious himself and said he would get back to me.

Received a lot of info on their manufacturer’s code of conduct, which covered everything from child labor to unionization. But unfortunately, part of their supply chain is still in China for the forseeable future.

Kudos to them for even indulging me. I wouldn’t be too thrilled if someone started asking me details about my business.

I’ve been a loyal Brooks customer for 15 years, but I explained that I will look for alternatives until they move completely out of China. With the majority of shoes being manufactured outside the US, it will be a challenge.

*****

Generally speaking, if you have to ask, it’s a bad sign. Every company I found that manufactures in the U.S., doesn’t keep it a secret.

Same for being cruelty-free or eco-friendly.

If you really love a product and they aren’t totally on the up and up, ask them to switch their manufacturer.

I know how naïve this sounds, but self-defeatism does nothing.

While making your voice heard, whether it be at the grocery store or voting booth, provides valuable info on what’s important to you as a consumer or constituent.


Step 5.

Search the parent company.

Now the fun part, check out the parent company for the same criteria.

Who owns “company name”

Who Owns Brooks

Not bad, not great.

I’m familiar enough with the group to know they aren’t the second coming of Nestle.

So no need to repeat the same searches for ethical and eco-friendly.

I’d call this one a tie.


Step 6.

Check the news.

Type in “company name” + scandal/controversy and filter for news.

Brooks + Controversy

OK, this is all about Nike, so that’s fine. I don’t buy their shoes.


Step 7.

Check their Wikipedia page.

Wikipedia is not always accurate, but they do a lot of legwork for you. And they have a large army of volunteers who fact check entries.

They often have a section for controversies or manufacturing as well.

Brooks + Wiki

Fortunately, there’s nothing to be found except some charity work and a sustainability program.


Conclusion

So they’d get a B overall.

Which I would be happy enough with if this were a class, but I can do better with what I buy.

New Balance claims they manufacture 70% of their shoes in the US, but the majority of their parts come from China. Same with Saucony.

It wasn’t easy, but I found a company that manufactures in the states and covers all the bases.

It took some digging, and I’m not exactly crazy about the design, but I’ll try them the next time I need shoes.

I’m really glad to be on this journey and was able to find a potential replacement brand.

It would have been hard to learn how to make running shoes.

If I can do this for shoes, I believe I can apply the same principles to all products.

Fortunately, there are very few brands I’m this loyal to. And I’m not writing this blog to make ad money.

I’m willing to make the switch to a more ethical alternative when possible.

If this is a bit much, don’t worry, we’ve done some legwork for you.

Here’s one of our product guides.

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